Warning: this column may contain aesthetic, think piece nonsense, as Cormac Duffy argues that pop needs to get ugly
Those of us who love a proverbial dance about architecture talk a lot about beauty in sound’s most popular subgenre, in that overwhelming, transcendent “I’m crying and running in the rain while listening to ‘Holocene’” way (don’t act like you haven’t done that). What we tend to ignore, however, is ugliness in music. By this I mean music the average listener finds unpleasant and repellent; sounds that are dissonant, loud, crass or just plain noisy. Music that if it were a face would have the lips of Lana Del Rey, the nose of Michael Jackson and the teeth of Shane McGowan
Yet it is all around us, not just on the laptops of Ministry fans. With Cloud Nothings’ latest record paying tribute to the shambolic, aggressive rock of post-hardcore America as a deserved ‘Up yours!’ to the era of pretty, vapid Instagram indie, and Nicki Minaj’s demented, almost atonal ‘Stupid Hoe’ sending fans of her usual pop precision running, ugliness is at play.
It matters too. If we want to maintain that collective belief/superstition that pop music is art, it needs to be more than the ritualistic, shift-preceding dance-floor fodder of the charts, or the sonic potpourri vomited out by every sensitive singer-songwriter and stoned teenager with a synth. It needs to challenge us to warrant the effort of a critical listen. Ugliness not only guarantees that we are pushing ourselves to actively listen rather than passively absorb, but is often the obvious symptom of fresh ideas.
The first time society encounters any boundary-pushing music, whether it’s Schoenberg or Slayer, or even the wild noise that some heard in early rock and roll, odds are it’ll feel a surprise lobotomy. That these sounds soon become accepted shows how ugliness pushes out our tastes and thus broadens the range of expression we can have as performers or interpreters.
Even in baser terms, we use music as a lens through which we view the world. You don’t need to be an ivory tower academic to appreciate the use of visual art or cinema for shattering aesthetic norms and tackling the darker side of life. I struggle to believe that music as thematically dark and aesthetically harsh as the likes of Black Swan could be as popular. Music is set aside by the average consumer for simpler things; heartache, celebration and having moves like Jagger.
Too many people instinctively flee from music that is superficially tough, unpleasant or difficult, rather than persevere to see its real meaning. Music has no duty to amuse us. It can, and should, be as brutal and unpalatable as it needs to be to satisfy its artistic aspirations. If we think that aspiration is important, the onus is on us to put in the effort before we cast it aside